In More Ways Than One

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Scott Johnson has been with his company for 21 years. In that time, he’s watched his outlet transform from simply an old-school call center to an organization also offering email, chat, and classroom-style and online forum channels for customers to interact with his personnel every day.

Today, Johnson is vice president of customer service for that company—eSignal, a Hayward, Calif.–based provider of streaming, real-time financial market information and tools for traders—and he says he’s proud of how his company has successfully improved its customer service strategies in the changing times. He says the biggest challenge for eSignal now is determining how to better utilize its five channels. “The questions we receive are pretty diverse,” he says. “If I could take three questions and automatically say ‘This one is best for phone, this one chat, and the last one for email’—wow, what a great thing that would be to figure out.”

Johnson isn’t alone. At the global consulting services outlet for contact center solution provider Convergys, Vice President Ryan Pellet says there are two pitfalls many companies fall victim to: developing a single channel believed to fit every consumer the company interacts with, and trying too many channels. The consequences of either extreme can be disastrous. “You’re putting channels out there that do not accomplish the interaction the customer wants and [that] leads to dissatisfaction with you as a company,” Pellet says. “It starts to impact your brand.”

Ensuring that a cohesive strategy is established before blindly adding on the latest and greatest in communication technologies is essential—and the inherent challenge—in putting forward multichannel service, argues InfoCision Chief Information Officer Michael Van Scyoc. He and his company, an Akron, Ohio–based contact center solution provider, are firm believers that the “tried-and-true technologies”—phone and email—get better results for InfoCision’s client base than would some other, newer technology that hasn’t been around long enough to be proven yet.

Ultimately, the goal of a successful multichannel service strategy should be to make the different communication vehicles chosen so seamless and cohesive that the customer doesn’t even fully recognize all the integration work involved. Today’s customers, in fact, don’t necessarily give a second thought to combining different technologies in their own decision-making anymore. “To the consumer, lines between channels are completely blurry now,” argues Geoff Galat, vice president of marketing and product strategy for San Francisco–based customer experience company Tealeaf. “We don’t differentiate between shopping online or in a storefront. It’s just shopping.”

In an older research note entitled “The Top Seven Customer Service Processes, 2008 to 2011,” Gartner Research Vice President and Distinguished Analyst Michael Maoz noted how important it was that companies start to utilize collaboration and community management as part of multichannel service strategies. A little more than a year—and a burgeoning economic recession—later, he says that companies aren’t forgoing multichannel service entirely but look at it much differently. “At the end of 2007, people talked a lot about advanced work with communities and integrating that with the voice of the customer, but by the end of 2008 they had fallen back down into reducing costs,” he says. “Companies are asking themselves, ‘How can I improve this business process to lower the cost of interaction at the same time that I’m going to keep customer experience the same?’”

Optimizing processes is a major trend shaping multichannel service strategies today, Maoz says. Giving field service as an example, he says that using multichannel service to help both the consumer and technicians communicate more and be on the same page can save time, reduce frustration, and, most important, cut costs. One cable provider, he noted, had 18 percent to 20 percent of field calls go awry for varying reasons, and was utilizing multichannel strategies to try and improve on that figure. “These ideas of online appointment-booking systems, letting the customer manage the relationship and how they’d like to be updated—over the Web, email, phone call, or text message—that’s multichannel,” he says. “It dropped the company’s error rate to 10 percent, almost in half, and drove down costs. Multichannel, even in a single function like field service, can have a tremendous impact.”

Ashu Roy, chief executive officer of multichannel customer service provider eGain Communications, explains his current and potential customers fall into one of four phases when relating to multichannel service strategy: channel-specific gaps (e.g., no chat or real-time assistance on the Web); specific solutions that are from best-of-breed vendors lacking a full platform; an integrated solution that isn’t succeeding from a business standpoint; and a more partner-oriented approach. In this last phase, eGain helps customers develop an implementation in their business context to ensure a multichannel service capability that’s a differentiator in the market, Roy says, and “not just getting them a checkbox item.”

Roy explains that most companies fall within the second and third buckets—particularly in the financial services and retail industries. He says his company doesn’t have many clients with channel-specific gaps, but of those, most are in the insurance and manufacturing verticals. “Quite a few telecommunication organizations are moving into ‘bucket four’ because they tend to be more aggressive given the benefits they can receive from a better customer experience reducing attrition,” he says.

The majority of the community needs to shift its view of multichannel service strategies, argues Zachary McGeary, analyst for Forrester Research. “Multichannel customer service is an endpoint, and where we are now is on this journey toward that,” he says. “We’re taking small steps, and there are a lot of different factors out there to be taken into consideration when evaluating how realistic this truly is for many organizations. Is the technology out there? Yes—if you’re looking at individual elements.”

McGeary admits the technology’s availability is no longer the problem. He argues that, going back to the beginning of the consumer-facing Internet, companies have been purchasing technology in a reactive manner. “New interaction points were enabled due to a variety of reasons, including competitive pressure, consumer demands, and hype,” he says. “Mostly, service organizations’ adoption of these [technologies] to additional pain points have been done reactively. There was the mindset of, ‘OK, too many phone calls, so let’s put some FAQs on the Web or add email.’”

The result, McGeary says, was that integration went out the window. “None of these channels [was] deployed with forethought toward integration or any way they could really work together,” he recalls. “In other cases, the technology was relatively immature and best practices were still being developed, like with chat or even virtual agents.” Not that this was entirely buyers’ fault. Back at the turn of the century, rampant mergers and acquisitions among point-solution players left many with an unsupported product. “This led to a lot of uncertainty among [businesses],” McGeary says.

Convergys’ Pellet echoes McGeary’s assessments. He argues companies have tried too many channels—and, in those situations, everyone loses. “It’s better to not have a channel at all than to put [one] out there that isn’t tightly linked to the others,” he says. “Consistency needs to be in place across all the [communication options] companies put out there. For example, the interactive voice response [IVR] needs to say the same things as agents with particular types of calls, and a Web site needs to answer the same questions an IVR does.” Pellet says companies may get some channels right, but if there is even one weak link, it will be exposed immediately. He says it’s important that companies understand the investments they’ve made and make sure those are integrated properly.

In what could be deemed as a step in the right direction, McGeary says more vendors are now selling cohesive multichannel solutions incorporating several bundled offerings. “There are relatively few standalone vendors remaining for mature technologies like email, knowledgebases, and self-service search,” he says. “Standalone vendors are still a huge part of the market for niche touch points like virtual agents, the sales side of chat, and surveys.”

The hope was, with the addition of a new touch point, the influx of customer inquiries on another channel would lessen. For example, if a company was receiving too many emails, the plan was to add an FAQ list to allow consumers the opportunity to resolve their own issues. McGeary says that wasn’t fully realized, though. “Due to the broader set of touch points, customer interactions are rather disorganized and hard to measure, so the notion of ‘right-channeling’ emerged,” he recalls. “Even though there’s a move to a single end-to-end platform, service organizations are still purchasing best-of-breed.”

Integrating all of these technologies together is difficult yet essential, McGeary says. “Integration isn’t a turnkey solution nor will it ever really be,” he stresses. “A lot of forethought is required to successfully integrate multiple technologies and applications supporting multiple, rapidly changing business processes.”

Gartner’s Maoz says that companies have historically funneled customers toward channels believed to benefit the business—not necessarily those that benefit the customer. “We’re neglecting to pattern service, sales, and marketing after the way the customer wants to consume the experience,” he says. “Just because you think you understand what the customer wants doesn’t mean that it will translate into a great customer experience.”

Maoz argues that a way for companies to break through this historical malaise is to take the next step and try to truly understand the voice of the customer, map the business process, and uncover glitches, flaws, and other areas organizations may not be entirely happy with in terms of service strategies. Even during a recessionary time, Maoz explains, anyone able to lower costs by optimizing processes and drive down costs can become a hero. “Take this time and energy to create a customer-centric view now and iteratively start with processes that can save money,” he says. “Communicate those back to the customer, build trust, lower cost, and then take next steps forward of more-enhanced Web 2.0. The cheap ones—like alerts, process consistency—deliver the right information at the right time and it can pay off, even right now.”

Benefits of multichannel service strategies can be found not only in offering a better customer service experience, but also for increased upsell and cross-sell opportunities. “This technology is also being leveraged as sales tools,” McGeary says. “It’s a new realm…and I expect companies to explore other opportunities for sales, especially since chat is an ideal avenue for that, when done correctly.”

One organization utilizing chat not only as part of its multichannel service strategy but also to boost sales is Drugstore.com’s Beauty.com Web site. With the help of on-demand customer experience solution vendor RightNow Technologies, the company added a “Beauty Chat,” complete with trained beauty experts, all with esthetician or beauty-counter experience. The experts engage in live chat sessions with online shoppers to share immediate advice on the best products. “It replicates the beauty experience consumers have at the make-up counter in their local department store, and we’re converting approximately 25 percent of their chat sessions into product orders,” says Ron Kelly, Drugstore.com’s vice president of customer and pharmacy services.

Kelly explains that his organization has to be cost-conscious, particularly since margins—especially in retail—are thin. Some other benefits include handling 80,000 to 100,000 contacts per month by providing customer service agents with a knowledge foundation that delivers highly relevant, contextual, and timely information, reducing phone handle time by 15 percent, and slashing email volumes by 30 percent. “[Agents] love talking to customers about the products and the company,” he says. “Everything’s been positive, we can read through transcripts of chats, and sales-based chats have a $20 incremental basket-size increase versus ones simply over the phone.”

Multichannel doesn’t just boost revenues; it can also increase exposure if your company doesn’t directly sell to customers. Take Shurhold Industries, a marine-supply manufacturer. People visit its site to gather information, gain tips on boating and marine maintenance, and learn where to buy its products. Barry Berhoff, president of Shurhold, says increasing brand awareness and preference was a key objective. Conversive, a provider of automated and live chat, deployed a solution to help enable automated answer support via an on-screen character, Captain Shurhold. Since deploying Conversive’s chat offering, the company has seen a 200 percent increase in Web-based consumer interactions.

“There are constantly questions about how to care for your boat, such as dealing with sun damage, fading, gel coat, and dark-versus-light color treating,” Berhoff says. “It’s a lot more involved than cleaning your car. We’re constantly looking at new ways to disseminate information and be the leader in the maintenance category for boaters.”

Plenty of ink is given to the customer-facing side of the multichannel equation, but Ryan Hollenbeck, senior vice president of marketing at workforce optimization (WFO) provider Verint Systems, warns that customer service representatives need to be properly trained for higher-complexity transactions. “We need to think about a lot of the WFO discipline we put into the contact center today and begin to deploy that to other parts of the organization,” he says. “‘How do we forecast and schedule the right number of people in the contact center to receive Web chats [or] communicate by email?’ Companies have monitoring and scheduling systems, but few have an effective analytics product that can help narrow down important calls and act upon them.”

Hollenbeck believes that multichannel companies also need to beef up automated e-learning tools to allow agents to have the best education possible in order to handle increasingly demanding customers. “WFO has a lot of relevancy here,” he insists. “[Not using WFO] is like running onto the field of play…without any coaching, training, or analytical view at all into how you’ll perform.”

David Lowy, senior director of product management at Austin, Texas–based on-demand vendor nGenera, says that it’s important to ensure agents are balanced out properly in order to effectively handle the increased interactions multichannel service can produce. He suggests tiering agents in terms of skill level for each individual channel a company may be utilizing. He also warns against overburdening an agent by expecting one to simultaneously handle a live channel and an offline one, such as phone and email. “Start looking at your pool of agents and rotate them cross-channel on a periodic basis for live and offline channels, so things stay fresh and challenging for them,” he says.

Managing service levels across channels is also an oft-overlooked but important background step in ensuring a multichannel service strategy is truly effective. Mansour Salame, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Contactual, an on-demand contact center solutions provider, explains service levels for the phone channel are vastly different than that of email or even chat. He says that phone interactions are primarily based on speed—how quickly the call is answered and how fast the problem is solved. For email, the needs are different. “It doesn’t matter how quickly someone reads it; what’s important is how quickly someone responds with a valid answer,” he says.

Salame argues that instead of managing service levels based on channel, target business need and inherent customer value. For example, first high-value customer phone calls, then VIP chat, then sales chat, service-level calls, and so on. If you tier it blindly—phone, then email, then chat—a VIP email may get lost in the shuffle of agents trying to keep up with phone calls and, in the process, you’ll lose a high-value customer. “We can dynamically allocate agents in order to do that and enable you to [position] agents appropriately so you can meet your business goals,” he says.

While the main channels many companies utilize when they are trying to set forth a multichannel service strategy include phone, email, chat, and Web self-service, many believe the mobile Web will be the next challenge to be tackled—and sooner rather than later. The problem is there isn’t a surefire equation that can solve this burgeoning problem—yet.

“Mobile adds an interesting layer to this,” says Tealeaf’s Galat. “Devices like the [Apple] iPhone and [Research in Motion’s] BlackBerry Storm provide rich Internet experiences and make mobile commerce transactions more viable.” (See "Shopping On the Go," in this month's Insight, for more on “m-commerce.”) With that comes a major challenge, Galat says: figuring out from a service standpoint what avenues a customer may have already utilized to solve an issue, since Web analytics struggle in mobile environments.

Roy, of eGain, believes that the sheer convenience of Web-enabled mobile devices is further accelerating the use of the Web as the avenue of choice for self-service. “I’m amazed at how much I use the Web from my BlackBerry device on the road,” he says. “It’s a much easier way to go about looking for help than calling anyone.”

To Lowy, it is going to be a tremendous training hurdle for contact centers to handle the mobile channel in an already cramped environment. “Teenagers are using this mobile platform more than any other way to communicate, and how the next-generation contact center will handle that environment is one of the next challenges we’ll have to solve,” he says.

While it may be a work in progress, it is a means to an essential end—being a concierge to the customer, says eSignal’s Johnson. Weighing his more than 20 years of experience in the customer service world, he believes that many companies get bogged down in the technologies utilized in a multichannel strategy and lose sight of the ultimate goal: resolving the issue. “For us, connecting customers in the right ways is something a lot of people are trying to do, but not a lot are figuring out,” he says.

SIDEBAR: Top Vendors Ride Customer Service Wave

Interaction-Centric Customer Service Solution Leaders:

  • eGain Communications
  • Kana Software
  • Knova (now rebranded as Consona CRM)
  • LivePerson
  • RightNow Technologies
  • nGenera’s nGen Customer Interaction Management Suite (formerly known as Talisma)

Process-Centric Customer Service Solution Leader:

  • Sword Ciboodle

Record-Centric Customer Service Solution Leaders:

  • Entellium (has since been in legal difficulties due to executive malfeasance)
  • Microsoft
  • Oracle (both its on-demand and Siebel offerings)
  • SAP
  • Salesforce.com

Source: Forrester Research: “The Forrester Wave: Customer Service Software Solutions, Q4 2008”


SIDEBAR: Stalwart Avenues for Multichannel Customer Service

  • Email
  • Interactive Voice Response
  • Live Agents
  • Web Self-Service

Source: Zachary McGeary, analyst, Forrester Research


SIDEBAR: How Chatty is Too Chatty?
Ron Kelly, Drugstore.com’s vice president of customer and pharmacy services, has been instrumental in adding a “Beauty Chat” feature on his company’s Beauty.com microsite: Trained beauty experts engage in live chat sessions with online shoppers, imparting advice immediately on the best products for each customer’s respective needs.

Kelly says the initiative has been vastly successful—an average of 25 percent of chat sessions convert to product orders, peaking during some weeks at approximately 40 percent. While Kelly says it’s been easy to load chat onto Beauty.com’s six main experts—a number that can be expanded to 10 to 15 staffers depending on volume—it’s important to not overburden any individual chat agent.

To that end, the Beauty.com agents are charged with handling no more than two chats simultaneously because the nature of the calls does not jibe with having myriad conversations open at once. Time, care, and a personal touch are necessary to seal the deal. “Unlike an issue-resolution type of phone call, in which you quickly take care of the customer and move on to the next one, the goal here is to drive sales and migrate into a revenue-generating contact center…away from a cost-center mentality,” Kelly stresses. “We average 12 to 15 minutes for a single chat session—and that’s a good thing, because we’re selling and recommending more products to customers that really meet their needs.”

As vice president of customer service for eSignal, a Hayward, Calif.–based provider of tools and streaming, real-time financial market information for traders, Scott Johnson utilizes on-demand solutions provider nGenera for its own chat function and also believes in limiting each agent’s simultaneous conversations. “One, we realized quickly we needed to have good writers, which is a lost art in some ways,” he says. “We also had to make sure we had agents who could handle three to four chats at one time, and make sure they could keep those conversations distinct from each other without getting them mixed up.”


SIDEBAR: Misconceptions of Chat
Consumer-level instant messaging technologies—such as AOL IM, MSN Messenger, and Yahoo! Instant Messenger—have been dominating the Internet for years, but now businesses are starting to make their way into the chatting fray. With early adoption comes common misperceptions about chat, says Rob Williams, chief executive officer of Conversive, a provider of chat solutions.

“There have been legitimate concerns about both sides of the chat equation,” Williams says, referring to live and automated chat. “Automated chat wasn’t successful enough to fully engage the customer, and it was too limited in scope, risking a poor experience. Similarly, live chat had issues with being deployed in a manner which didn’t successfully utilize human capability.”

Many companies, Williams says, were worried about having too few customer service representatives (CSRs) across too many live chats. In the process, no one would really be catered to on a personal level and the experience would be a failure. He believes his company has found the middle ground with a hybrid model, offering both automatic and live chat—sometimes even during the same interaction. “The automatic aspect of it takes a big burden off of [agents], making them more successful,” he says. “At the same time, CSRs make sure the customer doesn’t suffer with a limited knowledgebase…and aren’t capable of successfully answering their own question.”

Williams believes that we are still in the nascent stages for the commercial sector. “While it’s been around in basic form for some time now, I think the Web is now growing up to where chat is going to become a critical next step,” he says. “Especially in the social media space—in which people seem to be very happy and eager to communicate in a textual way online—you can’t help [but] think that chat has come to a moment in which it’s a critical tool in the corporate toolkit to communicate with customers.”

Assistant Editor Christopher Musico can be reached at cmusico@destinationCRM.com.

Every month, CRM magazine covers the customer relationship management industry and beyond. To subscribe, please visit http://www.destinationcrm.com/subscribe/.

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